Unearthing an Education

Field work in England sparks unexpected interests for one Mount Mercy student

Kim Wasney is likely the only Mount Mercy graduate ever to assist in the excavation of an ancient brewery on the site of a current sheep pasture in England.

Wasney, who graduated in 2008 with a degree in history, has an intense passion for travel and archeology, and had planned to visit India following graduation. When her plans for a pilgrimage to India fell through, she set her sights on England and the North Pennines Archaeology field school.

Along with her classmates at the field school, Wasney unearthed a medieval brewery at Dilston Castle,  home of the Radcliffe family. The castle was mostly destroyed after the 1716 beheading of James Radcliffe, the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater. Radcliffe was a supporter of the Jacobite rebellion, an uprising against James VII of Scotland and his descendents of the House of Stuart, and Radcliffe paid dearly for his allegiances.

Dilston Castle, located outside the city of Hexham in Northumberland, England, was “home” to Wasney and students from across the globe who spent two weeks uncovering the ancient brewery.

“As we were digging, we found perfectly laid bricks,” says Wasney. “These beautiful bricks just appeared from beneath the rubble — it was very cool. The day we figured out the ‘brewery’ was actually a brewery was one of my most memorable experiences,” she says, noting that she and her classmates thought it was a servant’s quarters.

The passion Wasney and the other students put into excavating the dig site, however, may soon be jeopardized due to a local landowner concerned with his sheep’s pastureland. At the beginning of the dig the landowner leased the land to the North Pennines Archaeology field school, with the understanding that should anything be uncovered at the dig site the landowner would sell the land to the school. By the end of the summer, however, the landowner had changed his mind, and at press time wanted to reclaim the land as his own so that his sheep could continue grazing. “We were kind of frantic toward the end of the dig,” she says. “We didn’t know if we’d ever have this [opportunity] again, and we wanted to discover everything we could.”

Over the winter the field school plans to work with local officials and realtors to forge a new agreement before spring planting begins and they are forced to back-fill the dig site. It’s a problem Wasney says archaeologists frequently face. “It’s really hard to determine which is more important — preserving the cultural heritage or increasing personal or commercial “It’s really hard to determine which is more important — preserving the cultural heritage or increasing personal or commercial prosperity. You’d like to save the old while making progress with
the new, but it’s a really difficult balance to maintain.”   

Wasney’s experiences in the classroom at Mount Mercy sparked her interests in international travel and archeology, particularly hearing former Emeritus Faculty Jay Shuldiner speak in class of his travels. “Jay had been to Europe many times and always said what a great experience it was, and that you’ll gain a new perspective on the world and people and different cultures,” says Wasney.

Wasney’s desire to travel abroad was further encouraged during her conversations with Assistant Professor of Sociology Jo Dohoney. Wasney, who earned a minor in sociology, credits Dohoney with pushing her to stretch her thinking on issues involving anthropology and different groups of people. “Jo would always point out things you’d never think of yourself,” Wasney says. “For instance, just saying hello to people; it is something Americans take for granted but it is a different concept and interaction in each culture.”

Wasney and the other students were able to perform a variety of archeological activities. Each day the group would make a 45-minute drive to the dig site to receive their assignments, and every day the experience would be different. One day the students hand troweled the dirt to ensure that small artifacts were not overlooked; other days the students constructed a grid drawing of an aerial view of the structure. “Instructors wanted the students to do everything and not just get stuck doing the same thing over and over,” says Wasney, who appreciated the hands-on approach. The students used special tools to measure the building arches, a technique that helps determine the time period in which the structure was built. “We were trying to figure out if it was built during the 2nd or 3rd Earl’s rule,” says Wasney. Ultimately they determined that it was in the 3rd Earl’s rule. During the dig Wasney was grateful for her background and education in history, particularly the insight Mount Mercy professors gave her regarding finding the meaning behind the ruins. “Jay and Edy Parsons [assistant professor of history] taught me how to study history — not just recite information but to be able to analyze and interpret the facts you are presented with,” says Wasney.

Her history education also enabled her to look beyond the artifacts and connect with the story of the castle on a deeper level. “I could imagine how the Earl and his family lived — before he was beheaded — instead of just going through the technical motions of digging and planning,” she says. “History isn’t just a list of dates and events — it’s the characters and meanings and lessons and culture. I have two amazing Mount Mercy history professors to thank for that realization.”

Working to uncover ancient ruins also served to fuel Wasney’s enthusiasm for anthropology. She plans to attend graduate school and pursue Latin American studies. “Before I went [on the trip] I was thinking of majoring in museum studies. Now I lean more toward anthropology,” says Wasney. “I loved being there and finding things rather than waiting for someone else to find stuff and bring it back to me. I love field work.”